Whether you’re a casual traveller or a die-hard fan, there’s a host of absolutely incredible historic sites in Belgium to visit and among the very best are Menin Gate, Waterloo Battlefield and Het Steen. There are other major cultural landmarks to see including the Trench of Death, the Church of Our Lady in Bruges and of course Bastogne War Museum, which is one of the best known museums in Belgium. With so many fascinating places to explore, it’s not necessarily easy to select the very best of Belgium’s cultural landmarks, but we’ve painstakingly contemplated, deliberated and meditated over this list and come up with our top recommendations as well as a few others worth exploring if you have more time.
What are the best Historic Sites in Belgium?
Menin Gate is an impressive gateway in Ypres, Belguim which commemorates those British and Commonwealth soldiers who went missing in action in Belgium during World War One. Ypres was a vital strategic point during the war and the site of fierce fighting, including three main battles together known as The Battle of Ypres. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers perished or went missing during this period and Menin Gate bears the names of 54,896 missing British and Commonwealth soldiers who died without graves. Menin Gate is one of the most important First World War sites in Ypres and has a daily memorial ceremony at 8pm known as the Last Post Ceremony.
Waterloo was the site of the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars. The battle saw the French forces led by Napoleon Bonaparte clash with the coalition of British, Belgian, Dutch and German soldiers led by the Duke of Wellington and Prussian forces under the command of Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The battle lasted eight hours and ended in the dramatic defeat of Napoleon. The battle was extremely close-run and much of it was a result of both timing and the communication. In fact, Wellington himself decried that it was “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”.
Today, Waterloo Battlefield is a popular tourist site and includes numerous monuments, the most famous of which is the Lion Mound. On offer at the site are audio guides, battlefield tours, films and even summertime recreations. Guided tours are available for added fees and range from one to three hours in length.
Het Steen, previously known as Antwerp Castle, is a Medieval Castle on the Scheldt river located in Antwerp, Beligum. Originally used to control access to the Scheldt River and protect against Viking raids, the site has been in use since at least the 9th or 10th centuries and is considered to be Antwerp’s oldest building. Much of the castle complex was demolished in the 19th century, leaving little of the original structure surviving today. The most prominent element of the castle to survive is the picturesque entrance gate. In modern times, it served as the city’s maritime museum until 2010 and now the external fortifications can still be viewed from the street by the wider public.
The Trench of Death dates to the First World War and, as its name suggests, was amongst the most treacherous of trench systems and had areas of no man’s land as small as 50 metres wide. Well preserved and signposted, the site offers an insight into life on the front lines in the Great War.
The Church of Our Lady is a magnificent medieval church constructed over a period of at least two hundred years, starting in the 13th century. At a height of just over 400 feet it includes the second tallest brickwork tower in the world and is the tallest spire in Belgium. Today, visitors can walk up the tight circular staircase for a remarkable view of the city centre square. Among the attractions within the church are the impressive 16th century tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary of Burgundy as well as the white marble sculpture of the Madonna and Child, created by Michelangelo in approximately 1504. It is one of just a handful of Michelangelo’s sculptures to be found outside Italy.
The War Museum in Bastogne examines the history of World War Two with particular emphasis on the campaign known as the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ which took place in the area. ompletely rebuilt and opened in 2014, the museum offers an interactive insight into the wider conflict and the battle itself. As well as digital exhibits and short films the museum also includes a reconstruction of the forest battlefield designed to immerse visitors in to the realities of the conflict.
Langemark Cemetery in Flanders, Belgium, is the burial site of around 44,000 German soldiers who fought in the First World War. Many of the graves at Langemark Cemetery are mass graves. Langemark was the site of one of the battles which together made up the Battle of Ypres between German and Allied forces. Ypres, today known as Iepers, was a vital strategic location for the Allies during the war.
The Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917, also known as the Passchendaele Memorial Museum, is a Belgian museum dedicated to the Battle of Passchendaele. The battle was one of many which made up the Battle of Ypres and has become an iconic symbol of the futility of war. In the Battle of Passchendaele, over half a million troops died for the sake of five miles of territory gained by the Allies from the Germans. The museum explores the events which led up to this battle, the experiences of the soldiers who fought in it and its consequences. Using a combination of multimedia presentations, reconstructions, photographs and original objects, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 provides a comprehensive account of this aspect of the First World War.
The In Flanders Field Museum is a Belgian museum mostly dedicated to World War One and based on Cloth Hall, a medieval building. The museum looks at the Great War from four perspectives. The first is a personal view of the war, inviting visitors to meet characters who were in Flanders during the First World War through multimedia presentations, information boards and written accounts. The second part of the exhibition looks at medieval Ypres and how it was destroyed by the conflict. The third aspect of the In Flanders Field exhibition explores the war as it took place in Ypres and Flanders, the part it played in the war and the First World War as a whole. The final element is dedicated to wartime art.
Passchendaele New British Cemetery is a World War One graveyard and memorial site in the town of Zonnebeke, Belgium near the battlefield of Passchendaele. The Battle of Passchendaele was a fierce conflict in the First World War and part of the Battle of Ypres.
Comprised of three levels and designed by Charles Holden, Passchendaele New British Cemetery was founded following the Armistice. It was populated by graves from both Passchendaele and Langemarck and today acts as the final resting place of 2,101 Allied soldiers, most of whom are unidentified.
Managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Passchendaele New British Cemetery also has numerous First World War memorials.